Compulsory Venting

If the first-past-the-post system is frustrating, the attitudes and assumptions it has bred among Britain’s politicians and pundits are even more so. This morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 featured comments about eight years of “unelected prime ministers” if Brown and a Labour successor governed from 2010 to 2015, ignoring the fact that Cameron would be just as “unelected” a prime minister—which is to say, not at all. In Westminster-style democracies, not least the mother of all of them, the people don’t elect the leader of the government, their representatives do. And people elect their representatives for all sorts of reasons, not simply as proxies for their party leaders.

As if that wasn’t annoying enough we then had talk of mandates, as if a deal stitched together by Cameron and Clegg would give Cameron as PM one, but a Clegg-Brown deal wouldn’t. Nobody in a minority government has a mandate to do whatever they like. Even for a majority government, claims of a “mandate” are deeply problematic, even in a country like Australia with compulsory and preferential voting; only in the biggest landslides are they at all plausible. For parties that gain 36.1% of the vote on a 65.1% turnout: sorry, no mandate. You represent less than a quarter of the total electorate. The other parties, needless to say, represent even less.

Any result that dispels the notion that politics should be a winner-takes-all game that hands total power to a handful of ministers, rather than a constant process of complex negotiation among the collected representatives of sixty million people, is fine by me.

David Blunkett, also on Today, noted how exhausting the last hung parliament of the 1970s was for MPs, with a death occurring “every three months”, as if this means we should always hope for majority governments. Clearly, we should all hope for a parliament that gives our representatives plenty of time off, for example during the debates surrounding momentous legislation being rushed through in wash-up. We should all hope for a parliament where governments bring forward contentious legislation that even their own back bench can’t stomach. We should all hope for a parliament so dominated by a single party, who in turn are so dominated by cabinet, who in turn are so dominated by the prime minister, that whatever she says ends up as law, even if hardly anybody else in parliament or the country wants it. After all, that’s democracy.

Or, just maybe, we might hope that MPs spend a bit longer in committee working out how to get broad consensus for legislation before they take it to the floor of the house, so that they won’t need to sit into the small hours performing bad political theatre every night like some sad Westminster version of the West End.

A Post-PM PS

What a fast-moving day—so fast-moving that the readers’ letters on PM were all bitter reactions from Tory voters to a possible Brown deal that was already defunct. The sense of right-to-rule was extraordinary: people speaking as if an increase in the Tory vote of two million meant that nearly seven million Lib Dem voters should be ignored, let alone the other twelve million non-Con voters. If the mathematical capabilities of the next Chancellor of the Exchequer are anything like that, we’re in for a rocky ride.

Still, a month ago it looked as if Cameron was going to end up with the same iron grip on power as Thatcher, and British voters and the need for cross-party compromise have put paid to that; the Labour party might now rediscover civil liberties in their attempts to woo Lib Dem voters; there’s a chance we’ll get something, anything except first-past-the-post in time for the next election; the Greens have a toehold in the Commons; and the BNP have been set back, if not sent packing. So hurrah.

11 May 2010 · UK Culture

From the reports on Radio 4 this afternoon/evening, it sounds as if Labour left Clegg with nowhere else to go: they wouldn’t even give up an easy concession like the (illiberal, expensive, unworkable) ID card, and rejected any notion of working with the Scottish Nationalists, whose votes would also be needed to get a Lab-Lib-Others deal across the line. So Clegg was faced either with allowing Labour to continue in government with no agreement or desire to implement any policies that the Lib Dems actually wanted, or with working with the Tories to implement at least some Lib Dem policies. There was no magic third option that would keep every Lib Dem voter happy, let alone all 29 million voters. Given that “some Lib Dem policies and not all Tory policies” was the most progressive option left on the table, it’s pretty ironic that Clegg will now be pilloried for betraying progressive politics.

Added by Rory on 11 May 2010.

Although the Guardian is reporting that Labour negotiators did offer to scrap the ID card. Oh well, all academic now.

Added by Rory on 11 May 2010.